Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has made four changes to the pack for their first home game of 2018 as they host Conor O’Shea’s Italy in round 2 of the NatWest 6 Nations at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 2.15pm).
Wicklow man Jack Conan will make his Six Nations debut at number 8, with his Leinster colleague Dan Leavy the second change to the back row which took to the field against France. Set for his first Ireland start at the Aviva Stadium, Leavy replaces knee injury victim Josh van der Flier at openside flanker.
Captain Rory Best, who equals Paul O’Connell as the most-capped Ireland forward of all-time (108 caps), is joined in the front row by Jack McGrath, who comes in as a straight swap for Cian Healy, and tighthead Tadhg Furlong.
Devin Toner returns in the second row alongside Iain Henderson, while there are 80th and 70th caps respectively for Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton, the drop goal hero from Paris, in an unchanged back-line which sees Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki start together for the third time as an international centre pairing.
Exciting young talent Jordan Larmour is in line for his first Ireland senior cap at the age of just 20. He is named on a replacements bench which also includes three more potential Six Nations debutants – forwards Andrew Porter and Quinn Roux and back-up out-half Joey Carbery. Roux’s Connacht team-mate Kieran Marmion is also part of the matchday squad this week.
Commenting on the incoming players for the Italy game, Joe Schmidt said: “I think Dan (Leavy) visibly, he got straight into the game, carried strongly, got off the line and defended strongly. You just want players to be decisive and grab the game by the scruff of the neck and we think Dan did that.
“The balance, with Peter O’Mahony’s leadership experience there and the two younger lads bringing enthusiasm, athleticism and hunger. (Sebastian) Negri was really impressive last week as a newcomer (for Italy), but that’s balanced up by the legend that is Sergio Parisse.
“CJ Stander had 42 cleanouts and 23 carries in the game in Paris, which while not attritional for CJ, he’s in great shape, it’s really rewarding some performances by Jack Conan as well. But it’s an opportunity to try to keep a freshness in these games – they do become, if not anything else, mentally challenging.
“There’s a whole gamut of things Jack (Conan) can bring to the party, and for those who remember the tour in the summer, Jack was a really impressive performer for us. This is another opportunity for him.”
He added: “I expect Jordan to provide what he’s been providing in the provincial matches so far, that raw acceleration and the ability to beat players. And without the ball he wants to make a big contribution, too.
“It’s a good situation that he could potentially slot in around experienced players, but at the same time, you don’t place a player and expect them to be looked after. He has an expectation that he’ll look after himself and look after what he needs to do and bring those exciting elements I talked about to the game.”
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Italy, 2018 NatWest 6 Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, February 10, kick-off 2.15pm):
15. Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster) 79
14. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 63
13. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 32
12. Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 3
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 5
10. Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 69
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 60
1. Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 43
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt) 107
3. Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 20
4. Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 35
5. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 54
6. Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 43
7. Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster) 5
8. Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster) 5
16. Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 57
17. Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 74
18. Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 3
19. Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) 3
20. CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 19
21. Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht) 18
22. Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster) 6
23. Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) *
* Denotes uncapped player